By Raffique Shah
March 25, 2012
I LEARNED a lesson in political morality — surely an oxymoron — at the politically tender age of 35. It came from the Machiavellian master himself, Basdeo Panday. Panday and I, along with George Weekes, Joe Young and others, had founded the United Labour Front back in 1976, when I was 30 years old. Within two years, Bas would “mash up” the organically integrated dream party when a number of us took what we thought were principled positions on fundamental issues, details of which are well documented.
Bas and I parted ways, and after an acrimonious year or so, we returned to being civil with each other. On the eve of the 1981 general elections, in Parliament one day, he asked to have a private chat with me. “Raf, I need you for the elections,” he said. “Name the seat and you have it!” I was shocked. I mean, it was not as if this guy and I fallen out over some woman, or over drinks. There were principles involved here. How could he even think that I would be interested in standing on the same platform with him?
But for Bas, politics always had a morality of its own. In what was intended to teach him a lesson in political probity, I responded: “Bas, let us remain civil towards each other. As for politics, we shall remain like the North Pole and South Pole, we shall never meet.” Undaunted, he quipped, “Think about it.” I did. Probity won out. I was among the very few from that original ULF who never rejoined Bas, not in the NAR, Club 88 or the UNC.
The ULF was the only political party I ever joined (I still have my foundation membership card). While I enjoyed good relations with individuals, even leaders, of other parties, and helped by lending advice or sharing ideas, I could not stand on a platform and deceive people because I wanted to hold office. I hope never to sacrifice principle on the altar of expediency or opportunism.
I got around to thinking about that clean break I made, and the price I paid for it, as I witnessed the run-up to yesterday’s internal elections in the UNC. What I saw, from the little television coverage I viewed, or what I read, had me puzzled. How could people from the same party make the kind of allegations many of the opposing contenders did, and end up sitting next to each other in Cabinet or in some party caucus a week or a year later? Who is fooling whom?
It was not just a case of principles thrown to the wind, if ever that counted for anything. Nor was it the absence of quality or class among the contenders. Most of them carried on as if they were teenage gangsters fighting over the spoils of some criminal enterprise. Maybe they were.
This column appears after the elections, so it would in no way influence voters. On the campaign trail, Jack Warner went public with a conspiracy he had engineered prior to 2010, when he colluded with the PNM to have Suruj Rambachan removed as Mayor of Chaguanas. Jack justified that treachery by suggesting Suruj’s removal was critical to weakening Panday’s grip on the UNC. I did not see the link, but I ask: how could he? I would say that such action is unthinkable. Clearly not. It was a case of expediency.
I should add that that would have hardly shocked Bas. Back in 1978, Dr Eric Williams wanted to pre-empt any defections from the PNM by passing the “Floor Crossing Bill”. He thought that with Panday facing a mutiny in the ULF, he could win Bas’ support. The two men met and sealed a deal. So in a way, Jack was using a Panday whip to cut the Chief’s backside.
Then there was Marlene Coudray doing the hop-skip-and-jump act, from the COP to the UNC, without even the courtesy of formally resigning from the former, or informing its leadership. Whether she met the criteria for being a candidate in the UNC is another question. To compound what is clearly an insult to the COP, both the Prime Minister and slate-leader Roodal Moonilal saw nothing wrong with Coudray’s gymnastics.
Moonilal, of course, carries another monkey on his back, although, political morality being what it is, that’s the least of his worries. In the previous internal elections, he did not simply support Panday against Kamla Persad-Bissessar, but he said some of the unkindest things about the PM. Today, Moonilal is harshly critical of Panday, and better yet (or worse, depending on one’s perspective), the PM’s anointed heir-apparent.
The unseemly behaviour by many of the UNC combatants may have shocked the sensitivities of the few citizens who still carry around a modicum of decorum. Not to the mass of party supporters, I hasten to add. They lapped it all up with gusto. They applauded as one individual or slate cussed their rivals, much the way they would cheer on performers in a comedy show. Therein lies a bigger problem in the politics of the country. When the masses settle for bacchanal and mediocrity, what hope is there for serious politics, for rational thinking, for focus on the real problems facing the society?
In the aftermath of this melee, the cussing and hurling of abuse at each other, they would have us believe that come tomorrow, “all ah we is one”. I suppose, to quote Jack, yesterday was yesterday, today is today. If that is so, either they were lying on the platform or we are dealing with people who are devoid of principle. Talk about a theatre of the absurd. Or the nightmare that the main actors and actresses actually govern us. Whew!